The Cable Street Riots

On the 80th anniversary of the Cable Street riots Dan Jones looks for the truth behind the myth.

Cable Street is, for many, the defining moment in anti-fascist politics — when parts of the British Jewish community and their anti-fascist allies took a stand against the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and their leader, Oswald Mosley. Taking up the Spanish Civil War Republican cry of ‘No Pasaran’ (They Shall Not Pass), a large number (estimates go from the tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands) of British Jews, Communist Party members, Independent Labour Party members, anarchists and socialists faced off against 2,000 to 3,000 members of the British Union of Fascists. Both sides were watched by 6000 policemen, mindful of the BUF violence against anti-fascists that had made infamous the BUF Olympia Rally of 1934.

Mosley had decided to hold this rally into the East End, with its large Jewish population, to provoke a reaction. Perhaps he hoped to mimic the success of the marches held by the extreme right in Paris earlier that year which had toppled the French government of Daladier. As the size of the opposition became clear, and fights broke out between the police and anti-fascists trying to get to the BUF marchers, Mosley called off his march and his group was dispersed by the police. In protecting the fascists from the anti-fascists, the police found themselves in the middle of a volatile situation. Further fights broke out, dozens were injured, dozens more arrested. The real “battle” on that day took place between anti-fascists and the Metropolitan Police, whilst Mosley and his Blackshirts retreated from the field.

In the end, Mosley got the reaction he sought. Despite his march being blocked by the reaction of anti-fascists and the police, the Government decided that such events were too disruptive and not conducive to the public good. The Public Order Act 1936, banning among other things political uniforms, was passed into law and was used to persecute the paramilitary style of the BUF and its fellow travellers of the extreme right. Cable Street itself passed into myth, becoming a rallying cry for anti-fascists that echoes into the modern day. Indeed, the very real impact of this is felt through to the modern day in opposing these organised extreme right groups, with Paul Golding of Britain First tried and convicted recently for wearing a political uniform under the 1936 act.

The myth of Cable Street, of a glorious battle against the fascists, is certainly oft repeated in the books and pamphlets of the anti-fascist movements. For some historians this mythologisation is problematic and fails to understand the actual impact of Cable Street or its lessons. Some historians, such as Dan Tilles, suggest that the real history of Cable Street is more complex than simply seeing it as the end of fascist activity, brought down by physical opposition, and Tilles has a lot more praise for the importance of intelligence based anti-fascism in damaging the extreme right. Nigel Copsey even argues that the violence each side used may only have served to further radicalise one another, rather than have a wider impact on society. There is still a lively academic debate over the history, but it is clear that it is an important event with a complex legacy that must be understood.

We also see, after their release from detention under Defence Regulation 18B after the Second World War, Mosley’s fascists returned to the streets of London in strong enough numbers to encourage the formation of new anti-fascist organisations, most notably the 43 Group. The 43 Group drew on the experience of the Cable Street veterans, and those who had served in the war, to oppose the re-emergence of fascism in a physical way. Meetings were broken up, marches disrupted. The tactics of Cable Street continued after 1945.

When British fascist threats became clear again, in 1962, British anti-fascism reached another turning point. While the 43 Group had been disbanded in 1950, another direct intervention group was formed: the 62 Group. Once again, marches by British fascists were disrupted, their meetings were broken up and in one case a riot started in Trafalgar square. But 62 Group — and the network and magazine that spawned from it, Searchlight — relied heavily on intelligence operations to uncover the activities of the extreme right, and report on them to the police and to the public at large. The meaning of Cable Street changed, from the direct physical opposition of the extreme right to a broader and more encompassing understanding of a fight with the extreme right over who would define the future direction of British society, a fight that would be fought not just on the physical battlefield but in the media and in organisations.

For over 50 years Searchlight has monitored the extreme right and reported on their actions, and we are now fortunate here at the University of Northampton to host their archives. Looking through the records, reading what groups like the Racial Preservation Society, the National Socialist Movement, the National Front, the British National Party and National Socialist Alliance have to say, and their actions, it is clear that, sadly, Cable Street did not stop the extreme right in Britain.

Perhaps there are questions still to be answered around the reality behind the myth of Cable Street, but the myth itself still holds a power and has an impact, especially in anti-fascist culture today. Barricades and running battles may have been replaced by photographic intelligence and informants, but it is the idea of continuing on a fight against intolerance that started in the back lanes and side streets of the East End that helps many anti-fascists continue their work.

Dan Jones is the Searchlight Collections Officer and a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Northampton. Details of the Searchlight Archive and its holdings can be found on our website, or Dan can be contacted directly at Daniel.Jones@Northampton.ac.uk.